RPGuide
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RPGuide

Narrating your RPG

Storytelling an RPG is a complex undertaking. You have to juggle running skill checks and crises, navigate combats in which they have to know the capabilities of all the players plus their NPCs, adjudicating rules, coming up with plot lines, reacting to the players, improv acting — and if you run a soundtrack, you can add DJ to the list. For those who sit down to run a game, thank you!

There are a lot of resources for tips and advice on running the game, but much of that focuses on characters and combat, fun ways to use the rules, and how to deal with players. So instead of another post talking about all of that, how about something that I don’t hear much about? Like narrating your game.

Image: Massive stone ruins amidst an arid, red-stone landscape.

What is narration?

“You walk into the tavern, darker inside than the street you left behind. For a moment, as your eyes adjust, the bar is a place of sounds and smells rather than sight: clinking glass and spilled ale, rough laughter and the scrape of chair legs on the splintered boards of the floor. Someone is snoring thunderously enough to be heard over the general din. Then your eyes finally dilate enough to take in the lantern-lit interior awaiting you.”

The narration is the connective tissue of a role-playing game. The bits of story that set up combat, introduces NPCs, and describes the effects of the characters’ actions. To paraphrase a certain Jedi, the narration is created by the Storyteller — it surrounds and penetrates the game, and binds the game together.

While I’m sure that some Storytellers can run a game without narration, I can’t imagine what that might look or sound like. The whole game in initiative order including shopping scenes and rests? What about role-playing? The Storyteller has to move the group from one scene to the next somehow.

But just because a game requires a certain amount of narration doesn’t mean that you have to go full Matt Mercer, who can famously spend minutes narrating and describing a single building.

What and how much should you narrate?

I narrate constantly. I may not be a voice actor, but I am a writer. I can describe people, places, voices — all sorts of stuff — and I lean on what I’m good at. For me, immersion is important, and narration is my tool for immersing my players in the game and story.

That doesn’t mean that everyone does it like I do, or as much as I do. So what does need to be narrated? When does it help your game?

Use narration to set the scene. Tell the players where their characters are, and what’s going on. If you describe a guard loitering on the street, it may change how the characters behave. If you describe their spaceship passing a nebula, maybe the PCs try to hide in the gas clouds rather than just outrunning the battlecruiser on their tail. The more details you give them, the more they have to work with.

Of course, your players will ask questions, too. If you don’t describe the guard, they might say: “I want to pick that person’s pocket. Are there any guards around?” Or even just: “Is there anybody watching?” But the more you set up, the fewer questions you have to field and the less often a player will change their mind about what to do — now they know the metaphorical pieces on the board.

Description and narration gives the characters material to work with, people and things to play off. And it helps immerse the players, too! A description of a crowded, bustling restaurant is a different environment for their characters to interact with than an empty restaurant where the servers are falling asleep on their feet.

How else can narration help? Scene transitions! The characters may have been in hyperspace or on a train for hours or days, but now they’ve arrived at their destination and it’s time for them to do what they came there to do.

“For three long days, you have marched across the desert, rationing water and even speech. The desert steals the water from every breath. But now you see the glimmer of water — the oasis you’ve been told about. And this time, it’s no mirage.”

Bam, now the characters can investigate the scene carefully or run recklessly to the water’s edge, and transition from trekking along an overworld map to moving around a defined space filled with discoveries, danger, and role-playing. Depending upon how much you need to transition, you might drill down several layers of narration — from the game world map, to the city the group has just arrived in, to the tavern that they enter where you turn things over to the players and ask, “What do you want to do?”

It works in reverse, too. Let’s say that the party has decided what they’re going to do and set out to do it. So you describe them leaving the town where they picked up the job, up a level to leaving the city, and then narrate them beginning the journey toward their destination.

These transitions are also good for moving from one part of a scene to another. When the players are finished with a role-playing scene, they look to the Storyteller to move things toward whatever’s next. Narration can bridge one RP scene to another, move from travel into combat, or set up the crisis that you’re about to drop the group into the middle of.

Voices and accents

While the cast of Critical Role is justly famous for their accents and voices, they are voice actors. They do voices professionally. But I’m just an IT professional and Storytelling is my hobby. I haven’t taken acting classes or voice lessons since high school, and I don’t have the time to watch hours of videos just to get a cajun accent right.

I can do a few basic accents, and I can differentiate voices enough that my players are only occasionally confused about which NPC is talking. But I need some help sometimes. And if you’re not good with doing voices at all, you might shy away from role-playing NPCs.

But this is a part of role-playing that narration can really help with. Not everyone can pull off a voice, but anyone can describe what a voice sounds like! If the players meet with a witch and you can’t make your voice crack or rasp, or can’t make it high and sharp, you can describe that.

“The hag cackles. ‘I’ll tell you the prophecy… For a price.’”

Just use that narration to tell the players that the witch’s voice rasps and cracks. In some ways, you can be more evocative than if you did do the voice because you can describe things that don’t have sounds: “Her voice sounds like the last wail of a child before it dies in the crib.”

Sure, Matt Mercer can do a kick-ass hag voice, but does his voice ever make you think of infant mortality specifically? Even if you use your normal speaking voice, that description can make the player’s skin crawl enough that it almost doesn’t matter what the witch says at all.

You can describe what things look like, and most Storytellers do it all the time. Sight is our primary sense, after all. But you can also describe what things sound, smell, or feel like. Ever read a book, then tried to imagine it as a movie and wonder how on Earth they’re going to interpret those descriptions? There are some things in stories that are easier to narrate than to show. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but how about smells? You can’t take a picture of a smell. You can’t show the players a picture of the sensation of something hatching under their skin and the first needle-prick pain of it beginning to burrow.

So if voices are a sticking point for you, no problem! Just describe them.

Narrative tips

There are some tricks to narration. While role-playing is becoming more mainstream, it’s still relatively new, especially next to literature. But literature has some tricks for making sure that readers are hooked in and their plots work, and a lot of them are quite stealable for role-playing games.

People are most likely to remember the first and last things in a list, which is why they teach you to put a summary in the first paragraph of your high school essays, and then to repeat it in your conclusion. The beginning and the end are the places that human brains catch the most information. If you heard someone rattle off a long string of numbers and then asked you to repeat it, chances are good that your response would be something like, “It started with a 4, and ended with an 8.”

It’s something that writers use to their advantage — and you can, too. When the players meet an NPC, put the things that you most want to know about them up front, and finish with them. The stuff in the middle might be only half-remembered or slip into the back of the players’ minds, but don’t count on them pulling out those facts three game sessions down the road. (Unless they take notes.)

You might give an NPC’s name, and then you usually describe stuff like their gender and race before trailing off into smaller and smaller descriptive details. Front-load anything important and end on vital information because those will be the easiest bits for your players to remember.

But you can work with that middle bit, too. All that description fluff in the middle can set the tone. It might not be an NPC’s name, but their demeanor, their stance, or attitude — stuff that the PCs might not be able to recall in detail, but that can stick in the back of their mind. They might say that the character was kind of shifty because you narrated them always looking over their shoulder, and kept one hand hidden in a pocket during the whole scene, even if they can’t recall those specific actions.

Try using this for some foreshadowing. If you want to make sure that your players pick up on something, then drop those important details right up front or at the end — the fact that there’s blood on the floor of the otherwise jovial and pleasant inn or whatever. When the party discovers that the innkeeper is putting drugs in the porridge and then harvesting organs of their guests at night, it won’t be a surprise.

Or you can go the other way and bury your foreshadowing in the middle. Bookend sneaky details with descriptive details and big, shiny pieces of information like the name of the inn or the innkeeper. “The inn is large and well-appointed, with plenty of open tables surrounded by comfortable chairs. Lanterns inset with streaked glass cast flickering shadows across the common room and obscure the faces of the other patrons. A tall man with a broad smile and bright blue vest approaches, clapping his hands together as he greets you and gestures you all to a table near the well-stocked bar.”

The players might not be able to specifically call out what makes them distrust the ale that the blue-vested innkeeper brings them, but you planted your shadow-seeds in the back of their minds and when they sprout into your plot point, they will hopefully say, “Oh, of course! I knew there was something off about this place.”

Finally, keep your descriptions digestible. How much information can your players take in? The answer turns out to be about 3 to 5 pieces of information at a time before most people start forgetting things. It’s a concept called chunking, which sounds like something the characters do after too much ale, but it’s actually the idea that human brains take in information best in small groups. Ask someone their phone number and you’ll get 3 numbers, then 4 numbers — not 7 numbers in a row. That’s because two smaller sets of numbers are easier to remember than a single long one.

Seven pieces of information is probably the maximum you want to throw at your players. And if you can group them up into chunks of between 3 and 5, you stand a better chance of your players remembering them.

How much narration is too much?

Just because narration is useful doesn’t mean that you should do it all the time. There’s a point at which more narration becomes counterproductive and your players will start itching to actually interact with all of the neat stuff that you’ve described. So how do we keep things moving?

Sometimes, let your players do the narration. “How do you want to do this?” is justly famous. Not every enemy gets the description, but when the PCs take down an important enemy in combat, or when a player has attempted something cool and pulls it off, try turning the narration over to them to describe their own victory.

This doesn’t have to be limited to the killing blow on an enemy, either. When the characters dock at the space station and exit the ship at the new location, maybe they can describe how their characters step out of the hatch. Are they timid? Excited? Wary? Are their hands hovering near their blasters, or are they already on their comlinks, contacting the station computer to find the nearest cantina?

Just asking the players to describe their characters every once in a while might be a good idea regardless of what they’re doing or where they are. Why? Because characters change. They pick up new gear, they get scars, and they just grow as people. The inexperienced warrior from the beginning of game has become a very different person by the time they reach the last chapter as the veteran of a hundred battles. If you use a three-act structure, then letting everyone redefine their character in description at the beginning of each act is a nice breakdown. If you don’t have that kind of RPG structure, letting players re-describe their characters at the beginning or end of a story arc does the same thing.

Handing over the narration to the players gives them another way to feel some agency, which is always a good thing, and your players will come up with descriptions that you never would have thought of. Plus, it gives you a break from narrating — and I advise Storytellers to take advantage of every break that you can get!

But whether you’re doing the narration or you’ve handed it over to a player, there is such a thing as too much narration.

For one thing, descriptions can get too long. “The man leans against the wall like a tool whose owner left it outside the shed and isn’t coming back for it. His hair is black, curling at the ends, but greasy and matted. His chin is pointed, forcing his mouth into a scowl. His eyes are brown, but his right eye is slightly lighter in color than his left, a touch of amber to the brown. He’s wearing…”

I’m going to stop there because that’s probably already too long. Remember to keep your details between 3 and 5 in number; 7 at the most. If you stack up too many details, not only do the players get lost, but you eat up valuable game time or bore your players.

Narration can fall into that trap, too, which writers call shoe leather. The term seems to originate with the old noir mystery novels, the worst of which could devolve into endless descriptions of every last little action taken by the hard-boiled detective. You wear through shoe leather walking around, so when a writer — or RPG Storyteller — wastes a bunch of time just moving characters around a scene, you’re burning shoe leather.

“The temple is up ahead. You walk down the street, two blocks and then three toward the painted edifice. You mount the stairs, one by one, ascending to the top. There stand towering doors. You walk up, raise your hands and grasp the handles…” Have we really added anything or just wasted time? You can describe the temple as a giant stepped structure with painted walls and towering doors, but making the players sit through each step it takes to get there is agony. You’re better off just saying that they enter the temple and then using those words to actually set the scene inside.

In conclusion, I’ll repeat myself — because people are most likely to remember the first and last items on a list. We’ve gone through 4 ideas about narrating your RPG, because people remember info in chunks of 3 to 5. You can even break down the ideas that we discussed into less than 5 items each.

Narration can convey a lot of information to your players. You can set the mood, drop foreshadowing, and give the players set pieces or details to play off. Narration can take the place of voice acting skills and can include information that even the best accents cannot.

Storytelling requires a lot of skills to pull off, but narration is one of the most important skills. It can be easily neglected, but is well worth spending a little time to hone. Good narration can tie a game together, keep your plot and your players flowing, and make up for a multitude of sins.

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